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Senate observer group reflects on progress at this week's NATO meeting

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

One of the challenges for world leaders meeting here in Madrid for the NATO summit this week has been how to keep the public back in their home countries focused on what's happening in Ukraine. For Europeans, especially those closest to the war, both the fear and the fallout are easy to see - a surge in refugees, higher energy prices and disruptions or price increases for food. But across the Atlantic, the conflict may feel far away, apart from the impact on American's own wallets.

THOM TILLIS: I always use the example - in North Carolina we have hurricanes. I go to the coast. I see the devastation. I know it's going to take years for them to recover. But the public, two or three weeks after a hurricane, begin to think everything's back to normal. And we've got to recognize that until Russia gets out of Ukraine, nothing is going to be normal in Europe, and it's a threat to the globe.

MARTIN: That's Republican Senator Thom Tillis of North Carolina, who leads the Senate's bipartisan NATO Observer Group, along with Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire. I sat down with both of them here in Madrid to hear their thoughts about what they both saw as a very productive summit. And I asked them both about the challenge of helping Americans to understand what's at stake.

For people who don't follow this kind of work closely, could you just explain why it was important for both of you to be here? Senator Sheehan, you want to start?

JEANNE SHAHEEN: Senator Tillis and I co-lead something called the Senate NATO Observer Group. And we were asked by the Democratic and Republican leaders in the Senate to lead a delegation to this NATO summit, to show our support from the Senate for NATO and to show our support for the accession of Sweden and Finland.

MARTIN: Senator Tillis, what do you consider the chief accomplishments of this summit?

TILLUS: Well, I think getting Sweden and Finland to invitee status next week after the protocol signs were clearly one of the most important ones. But having four countries from the Asia-Pacific here, having NATO recognize in their strategic concept that China is an emerging threat, are all very, very important outcomes of the summit, including an investment vehicle that's a counter to China's Belt and Road Initiative. A lot of times summits always have the issue that's dividing countries in different directions. That was not the case in this summit.

MARTIN: And what about the optics, Senator Tillis, of your delegation, evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats? That isn't something we have been seeing in recent years, to be frank.

TILLUS: But to be fair, on international policy, it happens more often than not. Bipartisan delegations in NATO countries or in any European countries are very well-received. They want to know that the United States is looking at the complexities, the challenges that they're dealing with. And it's also important to show that it's bipartisan, because they know that the only way you get things done in the Senate is through bipartisan consensus.

MARTIN: Well, it's also the case, though, that President Trump showed some disdain for some of these international institutions. Would you say that that point of view is - I mean, I'm thinking of the fact that one of the nominees for the Senate, a Republican nominee, said a couple of months ago that, you know, nobody cares about Ukraine - something to that effect. So I think - is your point here that that's not the prevailing view within the Republican Party?

TILLUS: It is not the prevailing view. We work very closely. If you think about it, we're both on Senate Armed Services. There's never been a discussion, never even a suggestion by any Republican member, that NATO was somehow irrelevant or outdated. We know that it's the most important alliance that's ever existed, and we're all committed to it.

MARTIN: What did you pick up from your discussions here? I mean, was there some overarching theme, something that you feel like you learned from being here that you would not have gotten had you not come in person?

SHAHEEN: Well, the thing that I thought was most important for me was hearing every person we met with talking about the important leadership role that the United States plays and just how important that has been here at the summit in NATO, how important that was in rallying allies to help Ukraine oppose Russia's war and how important it is as we think about our security going forward.

MARTIN: Well, to that end, Senator Tillis, we've heard loud and clear from the front-line countries - like places like Estonia, Latvia, the Baltics - that they have been very worried for years, and they are glad that the rest of the world is paying attention. But people who are not front-line countries, who aren't experiencing this directly, are mainly experiencing the war in terms of, you know, higher energy costs, you know, disruptions to the food supply. How do you maintain that sense of, you know, urgency and concern - let's even say, in the United States, where people are mainly experiencing the conflict as an item on the news, sometimes not even dominating the news, and in terms of kind of the disruptions to their daily life - like, what do you do?

TILLUS: It's a real risk to keep the public focused - I think less so in Europe because Ukraine is in their backyard. In the United States, you got to continue to work at it. We're going to have to make sure that people understand that this doesn't end in Ukraine and that that is a real threat, not just to the nations in Europe, but for the world.

MARTIN: Well, but given that high gas prices is a political issue, as well as sort of an economic issue, it's a gut issue for a lot of people. I mean, are you - you know, how you make the case? I mean, it's not exactly a secret that, you know, Republican partisans are blaming President Biden for these high gas prices. Are you willing to stand and say it's actually, as he said in his press conference, no, it's Russia?

TILLUS: Well, I think it's a combination of factors. I've said when we get back to the United States, we can have a debate about economic policy and spending and those sorts of things - the factors that are really driving inflation that existed before February the 24. But it's also very fair to say that what we've seen since the invasion of Ukraine are inflationary factors that that are only here.

MARTIN: What do you think about that, Senator Shaheen? I mean, how do you get Americans to kind of continue to, I don't know, accept the urgency of the moment when they're - that's how they're experiencing it, as their wallet issues?

SHAHEEN: Well, and I appreciate that. I understand that some people are having real trouble paying more at the gas pump, paying more for food. But what my responsibility is as an elected official is to talk about why the sacrifice is important. And so far, what I'm hearing from my constituents in New Hampshire is that they're willing to pay the price because they understand, as I do - and I talk about this - that our future - if we allow Vladimir Putin and Russia to win in Ukraine, our adversaries are watching that. And what's that going to mean for China in the future and their interest in taking over Taiwan and other parts of the South China Sea? What's it going to mean for Iran as it's looking at its ambitions in the Middle East, at North Korea?

We have a security interest in what happens in Ukraine and what it means for the future of the United States. The interesting thing about the strategic concept that was approved at the summit is that it addresses the new threats from the 21st century. So right now, we've got a conventional war in Ukraine. But as we look at the challenges that countries are facing going forward, it's disinformation, it's cyberthreats, it's pandemics. And the challenge for NATO is to think about how it does business in a way that responds to those new threats.

MARTIN: Well, some may also argue it's illiberal tendencies arising in formerly settled democracies.

SHAHEEN: Absolutely.

MARTIN: So, you know, to that - and, Senator Tillis, I have to ask you, this is a - you know, one of the other major stories was the testimony of a former Trump White House aide about his conduct leading up to - during January 6. You voted against impeachment, saying that the House, in your view, hadn't even addressed the most serious issue, which was not what he did after but his failure to contain it. Now that you have this additional testimony, does it change your thinking about it?

TILLUS: No, it doesn't. You know, the concern that I had with the impeachment process was the timing in both cases and the due process. And so even - and these hearings may be instructive to the Department of Justice. But ultimately, this is something that needs to be settled with law enforcement, not the political bodies.

MARTIN: What about you, Senator Shaheen? Is there anything about that additional testimony that you find particularly compelling, that you think should lead to further investigation?

SHAHEEN: Well, I agree that if there's - I think further investigation is helpful. If anything comes out of that, if there are charges filed, that's up to the Justice Department to determine.

MARTIN: But is this additional testimony compelling in a way that perhaps you had not expected?

SHAHEEN: There is information that has been disclosed that I wasn't aware of, and I think some of that information has been compelling. But the fundamental issue here is that we had a former president and his administration that tried to overthrow the government of the United States, and that is not acceptable. And we've got to help people understand. And, you know, for many people, they believed the former president because that's all they heard. So we've got to make sure that people understand what's really going on. And in that respect, I think these hearings are important.

MARTIN: All right. We'll have to leave it there for now. Senator Tillis, Senator Shaheen, thank you for speaking with us. Safe travels.

SHAHEEN: Thank you.

MARTIN: Safe travels back home.

TILLUS: Thank you.

MARTIN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF KASPAHAUSER'S "BLURRED TALES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.